By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
One of the most delicious true-life stories ever to come out of the Edmonton Fringe, a great natural repository of theatrical absurdities, can be traced, in a direct line of descent, to the One World Theatre production of Waiting For Godot that opens tonight, to launch this year’s edition of the Serca Festival of Irish Theatre.
Jeff Page is on the phone from Seattle to revisit. It’s 1993. And the production, by then three years old and with a lot of sold-out western Fringe performances (and one state penitentiary) in its archive, had arrived from Seattle to test its mettle at the biggest festival of them all.
It’s a matinee, after intermission (ah, intermission, a now-mythical concept at the Fringe). “So, it’s the top of Act 2,” says Page, . “Suddenly, a woman stands up in the audience; suddenly she has a bag of carrots. She starts hurling carrots at the stage, shouting ‘You’re absurd! I’m not absurd! You’re absurd!’.” Then she storms out of the old Bus Barns theatre.
A moment of stunned silence in the theatre. Page, who was playing Vladimir, one of Samuel Beckett’s pair of existentialist vaudevillian tramps — a role he resumes at Serca — remembers his partner Estragon (K. Brian Neel) went into improv brilliance mode. “Was that him?” he asked the audience.
“Perfectly Fringe, perfectly Beckett,” as Page puts it. In the single most influential and resonant play of the 20th century, the tramps are, after all, onstage waiting for HIM, this mysterious and mystifying authority figure Godot, to shed some light, to give some meaning to the absurdities of their existence.
The choice of veg is so weird but so uncannily apt — carrots are in the play — that for more than two decades, Page has been wondering about the identity of the woman. “For 20 years Mark Meer has been promising to introduce me to her,” sighs Page, who suspects a ruse from that master improviser.
That show incidentally was a turning point in Page’s life. He moved to Edmonton, where he’s been based ever since.
It’s been 27 years since Page and his One World Theatre cohorts got the bright idea of taking Beckett’s masterwork to the rural parks of eastern Washington state. He’d just moved to Seattle from his home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico with his “experimental improv theatre” buddies in King’s Elephant Theatre.
The early performances were something less than a smash. “We’d sit on a park hill at intermission and and watch people gradually fold up their lawn chairs and leave.”
They re-evaluated. The consensus? “Let’s not be as precious to the Beckett as to the funny. And we went to our campsite and re-rehearsed the whole thing.”
“After that, the people stayed. And by the time we got to the last show, in Oroville, Wash., we were really rolling,” says Page. Their excursion to the Vancouver Fringe was the first time they’d played the show indoors. “And it’s still one of the best acting experiences I’ve ever had.”
He still remembers the performance at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary — “there’s a history of playing Beckett in prisons,” he says. In the gymnasium for maximum security convicts “they were busy lifting weights, and little by little they came over and sat down. That’s the power of the play!”
One World moved on from Godot after that. They did Fringe tours of Aristophanes comedies; they went to Russia and collaborated with mad genius Slavic auteurs. They collaborated far and wide.
And then came Edmonton, with Beckett in tow. Page remembers being at a late-night Fringe bar and getting asked by a media type “how does it feel to have a Fringe hit?” He grinned and said “I wouldn’t know.” Next morning he did, though. “It was a big splash. A hit. Great reviews. Line-ups.”
In 1990, the Seattle Weekly had praised the actors as always believable, even though they were 20 years too young. Twenty-seven years later, with Page and Neel back in their roles as the time-killing vagabonds, time has solved that little chronology glitch for the company.
Waiting For Godot “has a different resonance for me, now” thinks Page, who was in a One World revival of the show four years ago in Seattle. “It feels all about the past, being with someone. The idea that life is unbearable but better with someone to share it with. Something about that act of living…. I’m not fabricating anything. This is experience.”
Time means something different when you’re 20 than when you’re 50, muses Page. “There are memories that are gems….. Everything else is blurry,” he laughs.
“And I’m a better actor now. I’ve done a lot of acting in those 27 years!”
Waiting For Godot
Theatre: One World Theatre at the Serca Festival
Directed by: Shawn Belyea
Starring: Jeff Page, K. Brian Neel, Tim Moore, Mark Fullerton
Where: Alberta Avenue Community Centre, 9210 118 Ave. (Serca headquarters)
Running: Thursday through Sunday